Tips for Painting with Water Mixable Oils

5 Reasons Why You Should Switch to Water Soluble Oil Paints

Artist's equipment of two brushes, three tubes of oil paint, and a metal dipper.

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Oil painting purists may shudder at the thought, but water soluble oils are here to stay. Many painters have discovered the joy of working with these newer oils and there are many reasons why you might consider doing so yourself.

Water mixable oils are perfect for painters who have allergies and those who work in home studios. They are also a great introduction to oil paints, so beginners may wish to explore this medium as well.

What Are Water Soluble Oil Paints?

First of all, it is important to understand what water soluble oil paints are. They are not water-based, but water-soluble paint and that distinction is key. These paints are real oils, they simply have the ability to be mixed and cleaned with water.

Water soluble means that you can use water to thin the oil paint (though traditional oil mediums like linseed or stand oils can also be used). While we learned in elementary school that water and oil do not mix, the water mixable (also called water miscible or solvent-free oils) paints have been formulated to accept water and get around that chemical barrier.

These paints retain almost all of the aspects which painters love about oil paints. They make it more accessible, convenient, and easier to work with oils. With practice and attention to how they are mixed, water mixable oils can produce stunning paintings that rival the color depth and texture of those done with traditional oils.

The Advantages of Water Soluble Oils

Painters have long considered oil paints to be the crème de la crème when it comes to mediums. They take extra skill and care to use, but are rewarding because of the textures and vibrant colors they can produce. Oil paintings are also appreciated for their longevity and ease of care.

As great as oils are, they have always had their drawbacks. Long drying times and harsh fumes from solvents are among the biggest complaints from artists concerning oils. These can scare off beginners and cause painters with allergies and other concerns (like a home studio with children and pets nearby) to avoid this type of paint.

Water soluble oils address these concerns and there are many benefits to using them:

  • The joy and look of working with oils without the harsh toxins and fumes found in turpentine and other compounds used with traditional oils.
  • Faster drying time than traditional oils.
  • More time to work with the paint than water-based acrylics allow.
  • Mixable with water, linseed oil, or other solvents to produce different effects.
  • It is possible to mix these with traditional oils and some acrylic paints.

Working with Water Soluble Oils

When you begin to work with water soluble oils, you will find that they are much like working with traditional oils. They smell like oils and you can use many of the same solvents.

Your Choice of Solvents Is Vast 

While you can use water to thin water soluble oil paints, it may not be your best option. Straight water will often create a duller color and stickier paint that doesn't brush easily or work well when other oils are added. In reality, water may be best reserved for clean up with these paints.

Traditional linseed oil can be used to thin water soluble oils and it will give the painting a nice sheen and add depth to the color. There are specially formulated linseed, safflower, and other oils designed to work with these non-traditional oils. 

You will also be able to use other mediums to customize your painting experience and the finished piece. Among these are fast-drying mediums, stand oils, impasto and alkyd mediums, and blenders to give heavily pigmented colors more of a transparent look.

Work at Your Own Speed

Many artists enjoy the speed that comes from working with water soluble oils. These paints dry considerably faster than traditional oils, though not as fast as acrylics. On average and depending on how thick the paint is, you may get up to 48 hours of workable time with these paints before they loose their elasticity.

You Can Mix Them with Other Paints

Because water soluble oil paints bridge the gap between oil and acrylic paints, they can often be mixed with either. You will need to experiment and choose wisely, but it is possible.

  • When mixing with traditional oils, you loose some of the ability to mix the paint with water. Many artists have found that a small amount of oil (below 25%) is a good range if you want to retain some water solubility. Again, an oil-based solvent like linseed oil will likely give you superior results.
  • Check with the acrylic paint manufacturer to ensure that it is mixable with water soluble oils. It is not possible to use just any acrylic with this type of paint, so be sure to research the brands you intend to use. With acrylics, 25% or below is also a recommended amount for the mix.

The Colors Mix Very Well

You may even find that it is easier to mix water soluble oils than it is to mix traditional oils when producing new colors. Artists who have made the switch have been impressed with the vibrant colors that they can get with the pigments and have even found it difficult to produce a 'muddy' color.

You might notice that some pigments are more transparent than they are with their oil-based counterparts. Some artists have noticed this difference with the likes of viridian green and cobalt blue.​

In General, They Work Like Other Oil Paints

Painting with water soluble oils feels like painting with any other oil. You may even find that you get better coverage because they tend to spread farther if you achieve the right consistency. 

As with other oils, it is very easy to get rich, opaque layers of paint on canvas or board. Creating texture and accenting your brush strokes for effect is also quite easy and similar to traditional oils.

The one aspect you may enjoy even more with water soluble oils is the ease of creating transparent glazes and water-washed underpaintings. This is where the ability to mix the pigment with water is very helpful.

Linseed oil works wonders for reviving dried water mixable oils on your palette.

Drying Time and the Longevity of Your Paintings

Many components go into the creation of water soluble oils and the formulation took many factors into account. The water soluble oils have been designed to prevent yellowing and should be treated like any other oil painting once you've finished the work.

  • Allow plenty of drying time — a week to a few months depending on thickness and the solvent used — and avoid dark, damp rooms.
  • To speed up drying time, add a fast-drying medium to your paint.
  • If you used water, a shorter drying time is required because water evaporates quicker than oil-based solvents.
  • Varnish finished paintings as you would any other oil. Like always, make sure the painting is completely dry, not just dry to the touch.

Water soluble oils are relatively new to the world of painting, so it is difficult to say exactly how good they are when it comes to longevity. Artists who have been using them for years have seen no difference in their first paintings and seem to think they are aging as well as traditional oils.

Do be sure to finish your paintings properly to avoid yellowing, cracking, and fading and your water-mixed oil painting should be good for years.

Cleaning Up Is Easy

Clean up is probably the biggest advantage of water-mixable oil paints. If you have avoided oils because you hate to clean the brushes, then this is the paint for you. Your cleaning time is cut in half, you can breathe easily through the process, and you will not be left with colored hands, brushes, and clothes.

  • In general, soapy water is the only thing you need to clean your brushes.
  • For stubborn paint, you might try to loosen it up by rubbing the bristles with a bit of oil.